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Delhi’s Grand Strategy – Newsweek.com

[MISC, Sunday, 19 July 2009 09:45 No Comment]

Time For India To Start Saying Yes.

India has long aspired to a role in redefining the global order. Ask why they deserve it, and most Indians will point to their nation’s size, its rich culture and tradition, and its special legitimacy—the product of the nonviolent freedom struggle against British rule and India’s triumph as a secular democracy.

Ask for more detail on exactly how India should redefine the global system, however, and things get murkier. That’s because, for much of its life, India’s foreign policy has been about saying no—playing out a Gandhian boycott on the international stage. Throughout the Cold War, New Delhi refused to take sides, avoiding international pacts and steering clear of markets and trade, all of which it saw as skewed in favor of the powerful.

This approach was initially a product of India’s economic and military weakness. Today, however, India is an economic powerhouse and, increasingly, a diplomatic one as well. The country’s economic boom seems likely to continue, thanks to a high savings rate, strong investment, and a young population. The global crisis will temporarily slow India’s rapid growth, but its economy is less export-dependent, and its financial system is more regulated than many, ensuring a quicker recovery. The country may not be poised to become a superpower, as some of its citizens like to imagine. But as its might expands—including military muscle (defense spending is up by a third this year)—New Delhi needs a clearer sense of how to use it.

Analysts like to lament the fact that India lacks a grand vision on the scale of Beijing’s "peaceful rise" doctrine. But formulating a decisive strategy is much more difficult in an open democracy with many different definitions of the national interest. This lack of cohesion is not necessarily a disadvantage. It ensures that when India does finally get around to defining its world view, that will be after intense debate among its diverse social and economic groups, which should ensure that the new policy reflects something like the true will of the people—not just that of policy wonks in New Delhi. For a sense of how this process works, consider the bruising battle over confirmation of the U.S.-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement: what may have sounded like cacophony actually helped to refine the terms, ensuring that the final deal better reflected India’s interests—for instance, by keeping several plants off-limits to inspectors.

Given the complex nature of Indian politics, it’s too soon to say what any grand strategy will eventually look like. But one can get at least a sense of it from looking at the various external pressures it will have to account for. Here several facts are key. First, India is still home to the world’s largest concentration of poor people. New Delhi is going to have to use its growing global clout to inject their interests into international debates. As India negotiates on agricultural terms of trade, access to energy, or climate change, this or any future government must push for greater equity—not by rejecting globalization, but by making it more inclusive.

Second, India finds itself in the world’s most threatening regional environment, surrounded by unstable or authoritarian states: Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, and, above all, Pakistan. To manage, New Delhi will need to balance toughness with magnanimity; unilaterally offering trade liberalization, for example, could help integrate the fractured region.

Finally, whatever policy India adopts will have to take into account Asia’s two other great players: China and the United States. New Delhi is currently building strong ties with both Beijing and Washington by following the "Manmohan Singh doctrine," which stresses economic diplomacy and engagement. But this doesn’t guarantee that relations with either country will be easy. India’s bond with the U.S., though strong, will be seriously tested if India suffers another terrorist attack originating in Pakistan. As for China, Asia’s other most dynamic economy and dominant civilization, the potential for conflict is greater. The two countries may share many interests on economics and trade, but experience shows how easily nationalism can trump such rational concerns.

India’s emerging strategy should not try to balance these or other great powers. Instead, Delhi should use its diplomatic skills to strengthen its voice—in order to win permanent membership to the U.N. Security Council, for example. But India must also show the courage to venture into zones of conflict and meet threats with vigor.

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